Syria: 1,600 civilian deaths in US-led strikes on Raqqa, says Amnesty

Amnesty's inquiry into civilian deaths in modern conflict claimed the US-led coalition killed 1,600 noncombatants in the fight for Raqqa. The figure is five times higher than the toll released by the coalition.

A two-year investigation into US-led coalition air and artillery strikes has revealed more than 1,600 civilian deaths in the campaign for Islamic State (IS)-held Raqqa over a period of only three months, according to Amnesty International.

The joint investigation with Airwars has been collated into an interactive website recreating what authors call a "brutally vivid account" of the shelling of populated areas where IS used human shields.

Amnesty and Airwars said it hoped to draw attention to what the coalition had claimed to be "the most precise air campaign in history."

"Coalition forces razed Raqqa, but they cannot erase the truth. The Coalition needs to fully investigate what went wrong at Raqqa and learn from those lessons, to prevent inflicting such tremendous suffering on civilians caught in future military operations," said Chris Woods, director of Airwars.

Read more: Raqqa: The human cost of degrading the 'Islamic State'

Coalition: 20% of deaths 'credible'

Amnesty said they had previously put their findings to the coalition but had been routinely rebuffed, with all but 159 of the civilians killed in Raqqa from June to October 2017 dismissed as "non-credible."

Coalition spokesperson Scott Rawlinson updated that figure Thursday, telling DW that 318 deaths were "credible" according to their records, while further allegations were being investigated.

Rawlinson said the unintentional loss of life was tragic but had to be balanced against the risk of Islamic State continuing "terrorist activities, causing pain and suffering to anyone they choose."

A UK government spokesperson told DW that an assessment was carried out after every UK strike to assess the potential for civilian casualties. While the UK does everything it can to mitigate risks, "sadly, no military action can be wholly without" them, they said.

The spokesperson also said it had been "the most transparent air campaign in history" through public and parliamentary strike briefings and that all missions complied fully with international humanitarian law.

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Amnesty said the Coalition had probably broken international law.

Raqqa's mass graves — digging in the dirt

Struggling to cope

Local authorities affiliated with the Raqqa Civil Council are struggling to cope with the logistical challenges of recovering bodies and providing information to families looking for their missing or dead relatives. What used to be the grounds of the city's zoo is now in fact one of several sites of mass graves in Raqqa.

Raqqa's mass graves — digging in the dirt

Shallow graves

Mohammed Assad, the on-site autopsy doctor, said that due to the intense fighting victims' families and "Islamic State" (IS) fighters buried people in the quickest and simplest way possible, digging shallow graves and wrapping bodies in blankets.

Raqqa's mass graves — digging in the dirt

Raising the dead

The digging stops and a dusty blanket is pulled out from the ground. Three corpses are wrapped together inside. "In this grave we have three children wrapped together; the first one is about 2-months old, the second is 2-years old, and the third is 3-years old," Dr. Assad told DW.

Raqqa's mass graves — digging in the dirt

Basic identification

The local team members are volunteers who do not have forensic expertise. The on-site identification procedure of bodies includes the exhumation date, identification number, gender and general state of the body.

Raqqa's mass graves — digging in the dirt

Laid to rest

Dr. Assad said the people here died of conflict-related injuries; those crushed by rubble, killed by shrapnel, IS sniper fire or coalition airstrikes. But he also remembers one unusual case. "There was what appeared to be an execution, where the head was placed separately from the body."

Raqqa's mass graves — digging in the dirt

Searching for relatives

Mohammed Saleh, a Raqqa local, has come to search for the body of his dead brother. He leads Dr. Assad's team to where his brother’s body is supposedly buried. The team digs and finds a blanket. Mohammed points out to a recovered body; he believes it’s his brother.

Raqqa's mass graves — digging in the dirt

Looking for a sign

Mohammed Saleh asks for a razor to cut the trousers from the recovered body. He says his brother had a metal plate in the fibula. The team examines the leg but no metal plate is found.

Raqqa's mass graves — digging in the dirt

Solitary thoughts

Mohammed Saleh shares his thoughts before walking away to have some time for himself. "Without Daesh's [the Arabic name for IS — the ed.] presence in this place the international coalition airstrikes would have not taken place. Fate led to my brother's death," he told DW.

Raqqa's mass graves — digging in the dirt

Little outside support

Dr. Assad says the group has received little or no support from international non-governmental organizations. With Raqqa currently under US-led coalition control, NGOs are keeping a low profile to avoid stoking tensions between the Syrian government and Turkey.

Raqqa's mass graves — digging in the dirt

Taking a break

Dr. Assad's team takes a tea break. One of the team's members, Ibrahim Assad, has been digging for the past three months. He says he’s come here to help to bring some humanity to these bodies and to give the families the opportunity to provide their loved ones with a proper burial.

Raqqa's mass graves — digging in the dirt

Just one of many

According Dr. Assad's estimates there are about 150 bodies here. There were instances where three to four blankets were found in a trench on top of each other. At a second site, a football pitch, the team expects to find some further 200 bodies, while a third site is estimated to have around 500.

'Unprecedented' investigation

Amnesty claimed the project to be "the most comprehensive investigation into civilian deaths in modern conflict," employing hundreds of site visits and interviews and thousands of activists to analyze satellite imagery and open-source material to be verified by partner universities.

In 2014, Raqqa became the informal capital of the Islamic State's self-proclaimed caliphate. After coalition strikes leveled the city, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces retook the Raqqa in October 2017.

Mass graves discovered there have yet to be fully explored and many of the remains have not been identified.

Islamic State has previously been reported to have used civilians as human shields in Raqqa, mined exit routes and shot those trying to flee.

US-backed Syrian forces claimed victory over all IS-held territory in March; however, IS continue to claim attacks in Iraq and abroad.                                                                   

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World Stories | 03.11.2018

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